A woeful winter

January 9, 2022

Afghan people are suffering from unprecedented levels of hunger and economic hardship following the Taliban takeover

A woeful winter

On December 31, I received a call from Afghanistan at 2 o’clock in the night. The desperate caller was an Afghan friend, who showed me images of hundreds of children and women, waiting in the open air at the Torkham border.

Among them was a 13-year-old girl, Shakeela, who was a thalassemia patient. She had to reach Peshawar for blood transfusion. However, she did not have a visa. She was accompanied by a relative who had a visa. If Shakeela was not allowed to cross the border soon, she could die. The Pakistani staff at the border realised the risk and let Shakeela cross the border on humanitarian grounds. This is one of the thousands of stories that unfold daily at the border crossings these days.

International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) president Peter Maurer recently said: “In my years as ICRC president, I have seen agony, suffering and despair in many of the world’s warzones. But I cannot begin to express how deeply four decades of war have damaged the people of this [Afghan] nation.”

The food supply situation in Kabul is such that people are dying of hunger. Eight children are reported to have died from hunger west of Kabul in October. There have been reports of a steady rise in suicides in recent times. Shopping malls across the country are deserted. Talking to The News on Sunday, Ali Reza, a businessman in Kabul, says the real issue is money circulation. “Banks are not releasing more than a certain amount of currency. The flow of money has stopped due to international sanctions. Doing business in such a situation is like being half dead and dreaming. How can we do business when people don’t have enough to eat?”

Fuel supply in many parts of the country has been suspended as roads are blocked due to severe cold. There is a shortage of wood and coal. “People are dying from cold,” says Ali Reza.

A woeful winter

Relief organisations have warned for months of an impending humanitarian catastrophe. Now the catastrophe has arrived. “Hunger in the country has reached an unprecedented level,” the UN refugee agency said on December 3. “Nearly 23 million people, that is 55 percent of the population, are facing an extreme level of hunger. Nearly 9 million of them are at risk of famine.”

In Kabul, people have been confined to their homes after the snowfall. It seems that the Taliban regime’s decision to recruit militants into police has not been paid off. Many people do not go out for fear of Taliban fighters in the streets. The city of Kabul looks like a cemetery.

Many crises are converging. As many as 3.5 million people have been displaced by the war and its aftermath. They are particularly vulnerable. Foreign assistance that provided for 75 percent of the public expenditure has halted.

“The situation at the borders is not good. This has aggravated the problems. It seems that the international community is not allowing Afghanistan to live or to die,” Ali Reza says.

The situation is equally precarious in Paghman, Balkh, Bamyan, Kunduz, Farah, Badghis, Paktia, Paktika and Kandahar. More than 80 percent of health, education, communication, construction, agriculture, women’s welfare and social development projects have been shut down since the withdrawal of international organisations from the country. As a result, thousands of unemployed men and women are trapped in their homes. Many including teachers, health professionals and civil servants have been working without salaries for months.

A woeful winter

“In my years as ICRC president, I have seen agony, suffering, and despair in many of the world’s warzones. But I cannot begin to express how deeply four decades of war have damaged the people of this nation [Afghanistan],” International Committee for the Red Cross (ICRC) president Peter Maurer.

International humanitarian organisations are the only hope for the people of Afghanistan.

“The ICRC is proud to support salaries for around 10,000 staff working across 23 regional and provincial hospitals in Afghanistan. Communities must have access to health care and this is one way that we can help ensure vital health infrastructure can continue to operate,” ICRC Afghanistan tweeted recently.

Drought has caused harvests to fail. Per capita annual income is forecast to drop next fiscal year from $509 to $350. These are starvation wages. Meanwhile, the US Treasury and the IMF have frozen $9.5 billion of Afghan assets.

The record number of applications for passports in the country after the arrival of the Taliban is proof that the Afghan people see no other choice but to emigrate. The Taliban who had initially halted the issuance of passports have recently resumed the process. After four decades of war, Afghanistan has become a metaphor for chaos and suffering. It appears that the international community has come to terms with the idea of a permanent crisis in Afghanistan. Perhaps that is why the issue is not being taken more seriously.

It is common knowledge that where there is peace, there is room for development. A winning fighting force now rules Afghanistan. These are the people who have come to power after 20 years of war. They see themselves as conquerors. They did not come to power through a democratic process. Therefore, it is believed, they cannot be oust in a democratic process. Their only opponents on the battlefield currently are the Islamic State in the Province of Khorasan (ISKP) fighters. Due to media restrictions, the people are not receiving updates on how the fighting between the two is progressing.

The Taliban have to fight on two fronts. Their biggest struggle is accommodating their fighters in civil jobs. The other big challenge is to put a lid on ISKP attacks.

Maryam, 34, a resident of Mazar-i-Sharif, says she had opened a handicrafts centre in 2013. From her earnings, she was supporting a family of seven. In September 2021, things really started getting worse. She has closed the centre and is currently living on her savings.

“It looks like nothing will be left in a few weeks from now. Neighbours and friends are still helping us. We have no choice but to leave for Pakistan or Iran and try to go to a Western country. At the moment, obtaining visas for these countries is very hard,” Maryam says.

A woeful winter

In the current humanitarian crises, Pakistan alone has provided a lifeline. Ambassador Mansoor Ahmad Khan can be seen engaged in humanitarian assistance almost on an hourly basis. He is probably the only diplomat in Kabul now active on both diplomatic and humanitarian fronts. Hundreds of Afghans can be seen at the gates of the Pakistan Embassy on daily basis seeking emergency visas.

Officials say 105,000 Afghans who entered Pakistan on valid visas have not returned after the expiry of their travel documents. Mohammad Sadiq, Pakistan’s special representative for Afghanistan, says the government is devising a mechanism to enable Afghans with expired visas to get their documents renewed. “We will facilitate their stay if they want to live here and do legal business,” he told a media gathering in Islamabad.

International agencies estimate that more than 300,000 Afghans, including women and children, have illegally crossed into Iran since August 15 when the Taliban seized control of Kabul.

Due to its own financial crises, Pakistan is unable to help Afghanistan the way it wants. The US, Europe, Japan, and Saudi Arabia need to come forth to support its efforts in dealing with the issue. A lot of pledges for assistance were made soon after the Taliban takeover but the Afghans are still waiting for their fulfillment.

Shakeela is currently at the Hamza Foundation in Peshawar. She needs monthly blood transfusions.

“We are treating more than 250 Afghan patients. Some of the patients have to visit us on a fortnightly basis. Most of our patients are children. There are problems at the border but Pakistani authorities often help these patients.” Hamza Foundation co-founder Ijaz Ali Khan says.

Like Shakeela, hundreds of Afghan nationals are crossing the border daily at both Torkham and Chaman. It was normal in the past. They would visit Pakistan and go back to Afghanistan. Now most of them either stay in Pakistan or try to claim asylum in Western countries.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist,  researcher and trainer on  onflict and peace  development.   He can be reached at frkakakhel@gmail.com

A woeful winter